The Soul Training Exercises
Select some new habits and activities from the list below to try out during Advent – the four weeks leading up to Christmas. We’ve compiled a list of Soul-Training Exercises from “The Good and Beautiful” series by James Bryan Smith to serve as a guide. They’re based on historic practices known as Spiritual Disciplines. For each one, we’ve included the Basic Practice, Extra Practice and Family Practices. Read through the list and see what stands out. Ask God to highlight certain ones. This is your Soul Training. May God awaken, encourage and empower you this Advent season. Enjoy.
“We don’t have the power to make the sun rise, but we can choose to be awake when it happens. Spiritual disciplines help us stay awake.”
– Sharon Garlough Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey
Writing a Letter to God
No one is past redemption. All of us have the chance, no matter what we have done or where we have been, to change our minds, hearts and behavior, and to follow the wisest and most loving teacher who ever walked this earth. Each day, Jesus says to each of us, “Come, follow me.” If we say yes, we can be sure that a good and beautiful day awaits us.
Write a letter to God that begins with “Dear God, the life I want most for myself is …” The rest of the letter will complete this opening statement (or prayer). What would a good and beautiful life look like for you? Feel free to dream big. Let God in on your greatest hopes.
Ask a coworker or neighbor what their biggest hopes are for the next year. Ask to pray for them. Email, call or send a card of encouragement to someone you went to college with or grew up with – when dreams for the future seemed to come so much easier!
Invite your family to write their own letters and share them around the dinner table. Help your kids write or draw their own letters. Hang them on the fridge or make a family dream book.
Play is an act of self abandonment: we stop taking ourselves so seriously and simply enjoy life. When we play, we are training our bodies and souls to live with genuine excitement. That is what the kingdom of God is all about.
Play one of your favorite sports. Read a book about something new. Sign up for a class that interests you. Rent a funny movie, make popcorn and LAUGH!
Invite a neighbor or coworker to take a class, read a book or train for a race with you. Ask a tired mom or dad if you can take their kids out to play and give them a break. Organize an Easter egg hunt in your neighborhood.
Play with the children in your life (your own, nieces, nephews or grandchildren)! Do what they do (board games, sledding, video games). Get on the ground and wrestle! Pick one day each week to designate as your child’s day to plan all the activities.
God cares deeply about those who are left out. The kingdom is inclusive while the world is exclusive. Living in the kingdom of God involves hospitality – inviting and including others – because our King is a God of hospitality.
Listen to and pay attention people. Become aware of the people around you and their needs. Be a preparer – doing the little things that make people feel loved.
Reach out to someone outside your comfort zone. Ask if they want to have coffee or go out to lunch. Host a dinner for your neighbors. Take extra time to make your house look inviting from the curb – shovel the sidewalk clean, trim any bushes that hang into other yards or over the sidewalk, pick up trash. Write a note or send a gift card to someone outside your circle that you know is having a hard time.
Encourage your children to invite friends over after school. Make a special snack. Host a sleepover or play date and make it extra fun. Make your house the place where your children and their friends want to hang out!
Keeping the Sabbath
Sabbath forces us out of the role of God in our lives. Allowing God to take care of us, we relax and enjoy life. The sabbath is a gift to help us rest, trust and surrender control. It is a matter of joy and delight, not legalism and rule keeping.
Take time to plan a sabbath. When? Where? What? Eat a family meal. Play games. Eat great food. Nap! Set aside time for private prayer. Read your Bible.
Invite friends to join you for your meal. Volunteer to babysit to allow parents time to take a nap or have quiet time together. Ask a friend or spouse to read a devotional book or Scripture together. Pray for one another.
Have everyone turn in their phones or mp3s for a special family meal or for the entire Sabbath day. Turn off the TV. Ask your children to organize a family game of their choosing. Read the Bible together. Let your kids sleep in.
Free your mind from the junk that the media fills it with every day. Give some space to the Holy Spirit to renew your thinking.
Spend 48 hours fasting from the Internet, television, newspapers and magazines, radio stations, video games, iPods, mp3 players and stereos.
Pick one or more of the above to fast from for a longer period of time or for all of Lent. If you find yourself saying, “I could never give that up,” take that as your cue on where to begin!
Designate one day of the week as media-free. If you like alliteration, make it Monday! Incentivize reading. Go outside together. Play games. Can’t imagine life without media as a family, check out this and this and this.
If we do not speak, we cannot lie. We cannot gossip. We cannot hurt others with our words. So, we practice this discipline to help us have better control over our tongues.
Choose a day to be a “Lie-Free Day” where not even a small lie crosses your lips (use discretion if your spouse just got their haircut and wants an opinion!). Don’t swear or speak shortly to anyone for the day.
Go a day without speaking. Choose a day that works best for you. Let others know and communicate only when absolutely necessary! Charity overrides all discipline. Plan a silent retreat. Visit The Hermitage for more information.
Depending on the age of your children, set the timer and challenge your kids to a silent hour (or maybe 15 minutes is all you can do!). But explain to them the “why” behind it. Don’t use harsh language or speak negatively in front of your family or to any of them. Set up a “negative-free” or “lie-free” standard. You lead the way, moms and dads!
Praying for the Success of Competitors
Instead of retaliating, Jesus is asking us to bless those who harm us. He wants us to see those who are a threat to us in a different light.
Pray for the success of a competitor – anyone you are measured against or whose success in some way diminishes yours. It could be another parent, a coworker, another business owner or anyone who gets under your skin. Pray for them a few minutes each day. Pray for as many good things to happen to them as you can think of.
Invite that person out to lunch (maybe after you’ve been praying for at least a few days). Ask them questions, get to know their heart. Write the person an encouraging note (only if it’s genuine).
Invite your kids to identify and pray for their “enemies.” Talk about it and pray for and with them. Encourage them to invite one of them over or to do something kind for them.
We all want to have our good deeds noticed! This can ruin our acts of kindness and generosity, because our motive may be to be rewarded for what we have done. Positive appraisal can become more important than actually being good or doing well.
Do something, anything, to serve someone. Do the laundry, clean a room, fill up the car with gas – and DON’T TELL anyone! Spend a week looking for acts of service to do in secret. Leave quarters in vending machines. Pay for someone behind you in the drive thru.
Go big (and in secret) in your neighborhood or where you spend the most time. Bake treats and leave them at doorsteps. Write cards and tape them on front doors or cubicles when no one is looking. Meet specific needs of those living or working closest to you.
Develop a Family Secret Acts of Kindness plan. Get your kids in on it. Have them come up with ideas. Tell each other, but don’t let anyone else in on the plan! Check out this website for hundreds of ideas!
We need to examine the ways we spend money, how we think about possessions and see them in light of the kingdom of God. Simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.
Give five things away that would be of some value to someone else – something that will be a blessing to someone else. If at all possible, give these possessions to someone you know.
Organize a toy clean-out day with your kids. Have them look through their things and think about what they could give away and to whom.
Once we have done all we can in a given situation, we simply turn the matter over to God and thus prevent worry from taking over. Prayer helps us realize that the provision of the kingdom of God is available to us in every circumstance. We also get to see things from God’s perspective, which puts our problems and concerns in a new light.
Each morning, set aside 10-15 minutes. Think of all the things you are anxious about and write them down. Ask yourself what you can do to remedy them. Make a note and turn them over to God in prayer. Write your request and be specific.
Set aside a day to pray and fast (from food!). Every time you feel hungry, turn your thoughts back to God. If there is something really significant you want/need to pray about, gather a group together to pray for you. Offer to pray for a stranger or someone who doesn’t know Jesus.
Have your kids write down every possible person or thing they want to pray about on popsicle sticks. Put them in a jar and have them each draw one to pray for at dinner and bedtime. Teach your kids how to journal and/or write/color down their worries. Pray on the way to school, pray before meals, pray when you hear sirens, pray for strangers, pray before bed – train their first response to be prayer!
A Day Without Gossip
The most pervasive (and “acceptable”) form of judgment is gossip. John Wesley once said, “Do unto another what you would not he should do unto you; and you will never more judge your neighbor … You will never mention even the real fault of an absent person.” We would help them, pray for them, ask to help them and stand with them, but we would never judge them.
Go one to three days without gossiping. Don’t mention the fault of anyone behind their back and stop those who do.
If you’ve had a recent conversation where you gossiped to someone, call them and ask forgiveness. Invite your closest friends to be in accountability with you – no one gossips. Give permission to each other to bring correction.
Don’t gossip in front of your kids (or ever!)! Create a “Gossip-Free” zone in your house. When your kids speak poorly of someone else, help them to reframe, “Why do you think that child would say or do that? Does that child know Jesus? Does that child have a hard life?” Create empathy. Buy and read, “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?”
Living One Day Devotionally
It is so easy to get distracted and walk blindly through our days one to the next. The only way to nurture our relationship with Jesus is to set our heart and mind on the kingdom of God. The fundamental building block of an apprentice of Jesus is living closely to Jesus in our ordinary lives.
End your day with the daily examen either alone or with a partner (spouse, friend, mentor).
Follow Madame Guyon’s How to Pass the Day Devotionally method a few different times throughout the week.
- Go to bed at a reasonable hour ( say 10 p.m.). You must be rested in order to awake and focus on God. A good day starts the night before.
- Turn your thoughts to God as soon as you awake. A key apprentice practice is setting our minds on things above, on having the right narratives and ideas about God. This is a great way to begin your day. You may want to say, “This is a day you have made for me, God, so I will rejoice and be glad in it. Be with me this day, and help me to trust in you for all that I do this day.”
- Spend a half hour in a time of devotion. This might mean getting up a half hour earlier than normal. Use this time to reflect on Jesus and the sacrifice he made for you and then offer yourselves to God in response.
- Set aside time to read a devotional book. There are dozens of great devotional books including “My Utmost for His Highest” or “Jesus Calling.”
- Turn to God in prayer throughout the day. Pause between activities for a few minutes to be still and turn your thoughts, cares and concerns to him. Pray Psalm 23 if nothing comes to mind.
- Set aside time to read the Bible. This doesn’t have to be an in-depth Bible study. Read a few verses a day and reflect on them – in between meetings or after lunch.
- End your day with a time of self-examination and prayer. Visit here for an easy step-by-step guide to the daily examen process.
- Don’t fall into legalism by trying to do it exactly like this! Focus on the spirit of the exercise, don’t turn it into law! And don’t conclude that you must do it every day. Spiritual tools are wise ways to live with God, not means to getting God to like us!
Set an alarm throughout the day to remind you and your children to stop and pray. Put a note in your child’s lunchbox or on the bathroom mirror or send them a text during the day to remind them of God’s love for them. Teach them a modified examen exercise. Pray with them through it at the end of the day. Let your children see you reading the Bible or devotional books. Let them see you praying. In the end, this devotional lifestyle will be caught, not taught.
We need to keep a balance between spending time with God and caring for others. To lose one or the other is a common, but deadly, mistake. We must wed contemplation with action, personal piety with social justice.
The Two-by-Four: Spend two hours focused on God and do four intentional acts of kindness. Don’t try to cram it all into a few days. Spread the two-by-four out over a week. Need some ideas on how to spend time alone with God? Click here. How about some ideas for acts of kindness? Check this out.
Gather a small group of friends, coworkers and/or neighbors to spend time reading the Bible or a devotional together. Ask others how you can pray for them and spend part of your two hours praying for requests you’ve gathered throughout the week. Ask others to join you in doing the acts of kindness – transform the culture of your office, your neighborhood, your school, your home. Extend the two-by-four challenge from one week to 30 days.
Read the Bible as a family. Start doing devotions together. Take a look at these suggestions. Discuss how each of you connect with God best – worship, Bible study, prayer, nature, journaling. Take turns throughout the week trying different ones your family members highlighted. Invite your family to brainstorm acts of kindness. Make a plan and do them together.
Sharing Your Faith
We are always witnessing, whether we know it or not. People are watching us, and our actions communicate something, for good or for ill. But we can become even more intentional about reaching out to others and sharing our life of faith with them.
Find out something new about a coworker or neighbor. Share a personal God story with someone who doesn’t know Jesus or is new to faith.
Invite a neighbor or coworker (anyone you don’t know well!) over for dinner or out to coffee. Ask deeper questions – “How are you feeling about life right now? What’s working? What’s missing?” Share your faith story or some relevant personal God stories. Offer to pray for them. Invite someone to church or to join you at a small group.
Identify as a family who you’d all like to get to know better (outside of the church). Invite them over for a BBQ or to dinner. Plan something fun. Make prayer popsicle sticks with your kids. Pray with your kids on the way to school or practices, “God, show us who to reach out to today. Who needs to be loved on?”
Treasuring Our Treasures
It is key to put on the mind of Christ and to see others as He sees them: treasures. Then we will naturally move to treasuring them, which makes putting their needs ahead of our own not only possible but likely.
Live unselfishly in simple ways. Ask a coworker how their day is and if there’s anything you can do to help lighten their load. Make coffee or bring some treats into the office or to neighbors. Take a parking spot farther away. Let other people into your lane. Allow people to cut ahead in line at the grocery store.
Write an encouraging note to someone who would never expect it from you. Ask forgiveness from someone you’ve treated like less than a “treasure.” Take someone out for coffee and spend the evening listening to and encouraging them.
When deciding where or what to eat, ask the others in your family where they’d like to go. Give your children the honor of choosing how to spend one evening during the week – any way they want. Brainstorm ideas of how to be more unselfish around the house. Challenge every family member to focus on one of those for the week.
Loving Those We Disagree With
We must view all who call on Jesus as our brothers and sisters regardless of doctrine or race or practice. It is crucial that we stay unified even if we disagree.
Pray for the success of someone who is different from you – religious beliefs, race, occupation. It could be a family member, a coworker, a business owner or a neighbor. Pray for them a few minutes each day. Focus on what you have in common. Speak kindly to them and about them.
Invite that person out to lunch (maybe after you’ve been praying for at least a few days). Ask them questions, get to know their heart. Write the person an encouraging note (only if it’s genuine). Discuss ways to work together better.
Research some different countries in the world together. Find out about their religious beliefs. Pray together for them. Invite a family over for dinner with a different background than you. Attend a local cultural event.
God has given us all a message of reconciliation – that God, in Christ, has reconciled the world to himself. The first place we are invited to practice this reconciliation is with one another. Forgiveness is a gift we receive and a gift we give.
Watch Les Miserables. Spend 30 minutes afterward praying and reflecting.
Have an honest conversation with someone you’ve distanced yourself from over an offense (yours or theirs). Choose to forgive someone who has hurt you. Humble yourself and ask for forgiveness from someone you have wronged. Invite someone new to take Communion with you. Share about how Jesus’ forgiveness has changed your life.
Share around the dinner table about a time you had to forgive someone and a time you had to be forgiven. Brainstorm about famous stories of forgiveness (Corrie Ten Boom, Nelson Mandela, Amish schoolhouse shooting). Take Communion together as a family. Talk about its meaning and significance.
Finding an Accountability Friend
No matter who we are, no matter how deeply we live in the kingdom, we still need to be encouraged, admonished and challenged to grow in Christlikeness; we need to be accountable to an encouraging community.
Go out with a friend (or at small group) and share something good that God is doing in your life and share how you would like to grow in an area. Go up for prayer on a Sunday morning and ask someone to pray for you about something.
Set a personal and/or professional 90-day goal. Ask someone to be your accountability partner for those 90 days. Invite someone to be your accountability partner and start meeting once a week. Ask questions like, “How is your soul?” “In what ways do you need to be encouraged right now?” “What is holding you back from living more fully for God?”
Take each of your children on a date. Ask them how they see God moving in their life and how you can encourage and pray for them. Set a 90-day growth goal as a family. Here are some tips on how to create a culture of accountability in your home. Or, check out the 5 A’s of teaching children accountability.
Stewardship of Resources
If we live with gratitude and thanksgiving for what we have been given, we will naturally give of our time, talents and treasures to those in need.
Write a paragraph or two naming specific people in your life and the way they bless you. Then take action – send them a card, give them a call.
Start a thankfulness journal and write about what you’re grateful for each day. Brainstorm two ways you can trim less meaningful activities (watching TV, Internet) or spending from your schedule, so you can invest in others (Go for a walk with a friend. Take someone out to coffee. Volunteer at church. Give to a charity or a person in need. Surprise someone with a gift.).
The sooner your child starts giving back the better! It helps them realize they can make a difference! Click here for a list of 10 ideas to teach your children (and you) generosity! If that’s not enough, here’s 22 more.
Can we live the Christian life without a worshiping community? Yes, it is possible – all things are possible with God. But the better question is, why would we even want to try?
Prepare your heart for worship on Sunday morning by going to bed early Saturday night and arriving early Sunday morning with a holy expectancy (“Spirit, speak to me. Jesus, teach me. Father, let me experience your love and power.”). Focus on one aspect of worship for the week (sermon, Bible reading, singing, Communion). Reflect on its meaning. Then focus on something different the following week.
Attend the 9:30 a.m. prayer meeting before the Sunday service. Ask God throughout the week and before the service to speak to you about what He wants to do on Sunday morning. Apply one thing this week that God is asking you to do. Is there someone you need to speak with? A change you need to make? A new practice you need to make as you walk with God? Worship begins in holy expectancy and it ends in holy obedience.
Make sure everyone gets to bed early on Saturday night and knows why – “To prepare our hearts for worship.” Wake up early Sunday morning and give yourself plenty of time to get to church without being rushed. Pray in the car together for the service and for your children. Follow up on the way home or over lunch – “What did you see God doing at church today?” “Did God speak to you this morning?” “How can you put into practice what you learned today?”
Writing a Soul-Training Plan
Creating a plan for continued growth developed by you and God, and perhaps others, is extremely helpful in your life with God. And yet, it is something very few Christians do. For some reason, we think that our life with God does not require effort or planning. Unfortunately, it never does. Nothing in life happens without planning, without a strategy.
What does a strategy do for people? It is a balanced and wholesome pattern that helps define how we want to live. It is a constant reminder of how we would like to live. It can help us to go beyond merely good intentions and into action.
“Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Matthew 22:37-40
The first and greatest commandment is that we love God with all that we are. The second commandment is that we love others as we love ourselves. This implies that we ought to love ourselves. Love is to “will the good of another.” We are labor to care for ourselves and for one another. Love God and take care of yourself and each other. If this is our greatest task, then we need a plan to ensure that we are doing it the best we can. A helpful way to do this is to practice ways that allow us to do all three. Below are 33 soul-training exercises that have been recommended in this Apprentice series (Good and Beautiful God, Good and Beautiful Life, Good and Beautiful Community).
Silence and awareness of creation
Counting your blessings
Praying Psalm 23
Reading the Gospel of John
Writing a letter to God
Living one day devotionally
Reading a devotional classic
Reading the Bible during free times
Two hours with God
Keeping the Sabbath
Finding an accountability friend
Praying for the success of competitors
A day without gossip
Four acts of peculiarity
Sharing your faith
Treasuring our treasures
Loving those we disagree with
Stewardship of resources
Step 1: Picking from the list. The first step in writing your plan is to pick several (5-10) exercises from the lists that were especially transforming for you. Pick ones that will help you grow the most.
Step 2: Add practices not on the list. The exercises listed are not the only way people can nurture their life with God. You may have other spiritual exercises you enjoy or other nurturing/self-care practices you engage in (hobbies, exercise). The latter may not seem “spiritual,” but if they affect your well-being they are spiritual. Add three to five more of these practices to your list. Your total list should have 10-12 practices that you believe will help increase your love for God, self and neighbor.
Step 3: Timing and frequency. Determine how often and how long you will practice these exercises. Think about how much you need to engage in these exercises to get the most benefit, without overdoing it.
Step 4: Creating a plan with balance and moderation. Is your list balanced? Are there the right number of exercises in each of the three areas?
Step 5: Allowing others to shape your plan. Have others look at your plan and offer their input, especially in terms of balance and attainability.
Step 6: Just start. It’s time to put your plan into practice. Simply having a plan will do you no good; you have to live it. Look over your schedule and plan when you will engage in these practices. Keep your plan in front of you. Make copies and hang them up.
Step 7: Living your plan in community. Find some people who can meet regularly to ask, “How’s it going with your plan?” The following questions can be used to help you analyze how God is at work in your spiritual training program.
Examen for Individuals
1. How am I seeing God at work in what I am doing?
2. Which practices am I enjoying the most? The least?
3. What, if anything, needs to be modified or changed in my plan?
Examen for Groups
1. Which old, false narratives have you struggled with since we last met?
2. How are you doing with your plan?
3. What is God teaching you through the practices in your plan?
4. How can we support you?